Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Children's emotional development is harder to visualize and to measure than are other aspects of development. However, it is no less important than other forms of development, and in many ways is key. Children's emotional maturation provides a foundation upon which social developments may take place. Parents encourage children's emotional development by expressing their unconditional love and affection, by helping children to feel special and valued, and by helping them learn to understand their emotions and feelings.
One of the most valuable ways that parents can encourage healthy emotional development is by showing their children unconditional love and affection every day. Parents need to illustrate to their children that they appreciate and value them, and enjoy their company just because of who they are. The easiest ways that parents can express this love are through physical gestures of affection. Hugs, kisses, gentle "rough and tumble" play, gentle tickling, and snuggling in quiet moments are all wonderful ways parents can show love. Appropriate physical contact is still a vital ingredient of child development during the preschool years.
Parents can also use language to bond emotionally with their children. Kind nicknames that kids enjoy and which make them feel special, like "peanut" or "sweet pea" offer one verbal way of creating emotional intimacy. As well, offering words of encouragement and praise to children involved in activities is also beneficial. Finally, speaking the words "I love you" regularly also remind young children how parents feel about them.
It is also important to encourage children's increased understanding of emotions and the connection between thoughts, feelings, and actions during the pre-operational years. Parents can plan activities that help children to examine and understand the range of human emotions, as well as how such emotions can be read in people's faces. For example, parents can point out pictures of people feeling different emotions in magazines. Older children can draw or paint emotion faces out of paper plates and craft supplies. Parents can also play a game with children where they are encouraged to act out the different emotions a favorite character in a story experiences. Children's puppet shows and plays can also be wonderful vehicles for helping children act out and understand their own emotions as well as how others feel.
Parents can be instrumental in helping young children start to make connections between how they feel emotionally and physically. Adults can help children connect feelings and thoughts with actions, facial expressions, and body posture by making observations like this one: "Andy, I see you're scowling and clenching your fists. You look angry. What's going on?" Another fun and silly way to help young children make connections between how they feel and what they look like is to have them practice making emotion faces in the mirror.
Young children also need repeated opportunities to practice self-control and develop patience. The classic outdoor running game, Red Light Green Light is a great way to help children hone these important skills. In this game, children run around when a leader calls "green light." When the leader calls "red light", however, children must immediately stop where they are and freeze. Anyone still moving after the red light is called out.
Children feel naturally proud when they are recognized for achieving an accomplishment for which they have worked hard. Parents can help teach children the pattern or template for their future success by offering them useful tasks they can accomplish, and then providing lots of praise when they complete those tasks. For example, Dad can encourage Lamar to take pride in having a clean bedroom and play area by challenging him to clean these areas up as fast as he can. If Lamar doesn't know what Dad expects a clean bedroom to look like, Dad can explain, "You need to make your bed and put your toys away" so that Lamar understands exactly what to do. When Lamar finishes the job and beams about his accomplishment, Dad can encourage him with words like, "Wow, you're so fast! I'm proud of how clean your room is! You made your bed all by yourself and all your toys are put away. Good job!" Dad's praise helps Lamar to know he can take pride in a job done well.